Exclusive Interview: Carlton Cuse on ‘San Andreas’
One week after his fellow Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof came to theaters with his new film Tomorrowland, Carlton Cuse is taking a crack at the summer blockbuster season with San Andreas. The new disaster film, directed by Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island), stars Dwayne Johnson (Furious 7), Carla Gugino (Watchmen) and Alexandra Daddario (True Detective) as an estranged family who are brought together after a series of calamitous earthquakes strike the west coast.
I spoke to Carlton Cuse on a comfy couch overlooking the Los Angeles skyline from the Marriott Hotel downtown. It seemed like an appropriate backdrop, watching the innocent citizens of L.A. go about their business, completely unaware that Cuse has already written about their total destruction. We discussed his decision to forego the ensemble cast approach to disaster movies pioneered by Irwin Allen (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno), the invention of a new earthquake prediction system in San Andreas, and his own personal history with the Northridge earthquake, a magnitude 6.7 scale disaster which rocked the southland on January 17, 1994.
San Andreas arrives in theaters on May 29, 2015.
CraveOnline: You wrecked this. [Gestures to Los Angeles skyline.]
Carlton Cuse: Yeah, we destroy a lot of L.A. That is definitely true.
Was there any sour grapes involved? Were you just like, “Haha!”
I mean, I will say that coming out of television there’s always that little voice in your brain which is saying, “That’s too much, that’s too much, we can’t do that, we can’t pull that off.” So for me, the fact that there were no constraints because this was a huge movie, that was really satisfying. The idea that anything goes was a big part of the allure of this project.
I’m sure that’s true at the script stage, but once you got into the production, was there any moment that they told you, “Yeah… no, we’ve got to cut out this whole subplot?”
It’s really interesting for me because, coming from television and as a showrunner, showrunners and televisions are like directors in movies. They are the final creative authority. Honestly, after I wrote my final pass on this movie, I left to go back to work on my TV series and Brad Peyton and the production team went off and the made the movie, and I was not involved at all in the production of the movie. So they did a bunch of things during the making of the movie, I think in many ways all for the better.
I’m super pleased with how the movie came out. I think Brad Peyton did a fantastic job. But there was this gap between me finishing my script work and me seeing the first cut, and I was not involved in the making of it and [it] was really fun for me to actually sort of see the movie first as a fan, and have a chance to experience it without having gone through the whole process of it being made.
Going back to your original job, the disaster genre obviously has a lot of precedent. I think we all look back to Irwin Allen and how he framed it. In a lot of the old Irwin Allen films, and even some of the more recent Roland Emmerich ones, there was a very broad, expansive ensemble cast. All walks of life, ethnicities and genders.
Here the focus is very small, it’s mostly just on one family. What went into that decision, and what do you think you gained and lost from that approach?
I felt like those movies suffer from being too diffuse, and I wanted first and foremost for this to be an emotional story. It was a story about the characters first and the earthquake second, so it just needed a very simple and direct narrative line.
When I got involved, the story existed of Dwayne [Johnson]’s character trying to rescue his daughter. I added the entire Paul Giamatti storyline, which I felt was really kind of the critical narrative spine of the movie that you needed to understand. You needed an earthquake expert, an authority who would be basically contextualizing everything that’s going on in this movie.
And then I did a significant amount of work to give Alexandra [Daddario]’s character her own story, her own mission, her own drive, so she wasn’t just sitting there passively waiting to get rescued. So that she had her own agenda, that she had grown up as the daughter of a firefighter and rescue worker, and sort of by osmosis she learned a lot, as one did. So she was the one who was going to be competent and heroic, and was going to have her own journey to save herself before Dwayne and Carla [Gugino] showed up.
Let’s talk about that Paul Giamatti character. You’re right, we do need someone to explain what’s going on to the audience. But why was it necessary to invent a new technology to predict earthquakes?
I think that in some ways the goal of seismology, and after talking to a bunch of seismologists, the ultimate goal of seismology is to be able to predict earthquakes.
I mean, that’s sort of the holy grail. It’s funny, in the press conference Brad, Beau [Flynn, Producer] and Dwayne were all talking about Steven Spielberg. Well, Steven Spielberg movies were a massive influence on me as well, and I felt like the idea of being able to predict earthquakes was sort of like the holy grail of this movie. [The] Paul Giamatti character needed to have a goal, and his goal was “Can we predict earthquakes?” The idea [was] that there was some hope of success.
In a way, the unifying theme across all three storylines, is communication is the key to success. Paul Giamatti is trying to communicate a message to the world that these earthquakes are happening and there’s even worse to come. If he can communicate that, that’s going to save a lot of people. Dwayne and Carla’s characters are trying to communicate with their daughter. She’s trying to communicate with them. It all thematically is about [how] communication is one of the devices by which this family is put back together and the theme of communication affects the third storyline, which is Paul Giamatti’s.
It’s just interesting to me that even though predicting earthquakes is the goal of seismology, by actually showing that being invented over the course of the film, you turned San Andreas into sci-fi.
Yeah, I mean look, clearly this movie is metaphoric and not literal…
I hope so! Otherwise we’re in trouble!
It was never in my mind meant to be a documentary. It was meant to be entertaining, but grounded in enough reality that people can connect to it. In the same ways Jaws, one of the most influential movies on me as a writer, again, is it likely that a great white shark is going to eat up a boat on its way to… as part of killing all these people? Probably not, but the idea that you could get attacked by a shark while you’re out swimming is very visceral and believable. It felt like metaphoric exaggeration became a critical part of the narrative process.
You bring up whether it’s likely that a shark would attack a boat. I live in Los Angeles. I presume you live in the Los Angeles area, or are here a lot…?
It’s likely that we’ll be hit by a gigantic earthquake again someday.
There’s a part of me watching this movie, watching Los Angeles get destroyed, and I’m thinking, “Well, I just died…”
But you know, it’s a lot less likely that skyscrapers will be toppling and falling like trees.
I hope so!
That would take such a massive earthquake. But there are other dangers that are less cinematic that are just as scary. For instance, I’ve had seismologists tell me that a lot of the gas lines would rupture and that a big part of L.A. would just burn up. Or sewer lines would rupture, there could be an outbreak of cholera. There’s things like, you can’t really dramatize an outbreak of cholera in a two-hour action movie! [Laughs.] But it’s just as scary as the possibility of a building toppling over.
So… sequel. That’s what you do.
Yes. San Andreas 2: Cholera.
I like it. I remember the first time I saw the title of this movie and I thought, “They’re going to make a movie about Saint Andrew? Are they going to take a lot of liberties…?”
It’s funny because someone said to me the other day, “Is this related to Grand Theft Auto?” But no, I think the idea that, where we’re sitting right now there’s actually a significant fault right here. Downtown Los Angeles is potentially a perilous place. We all go about our lives and we accept that risk. I hope that while the movie is entertaining and scary and really kind of a great ride, that it will also make people go out and buy water purifiers and have food and water and an emergency supply kit.
Have you been through any of the major earthquakes in Los Angeles?
I was. I would say that one of the huge emotionally motivating factors was riding out the ’94 Northridge earthquake. And “the Northridge earthquake” was actually kind of a misnomer. The epicenter was in Reseda. I live in Sherman Oaks, which is right next door to Reseda, basically. There’s Reseda, Van Nuys, Sherman Oaks. It was horrific.
We had a young child at the time and I remember, it’s like four in the morning, my wife is running into the room and she can’t find our daughter. She had been knocked out of bed and it was dark and she was scrambling around trying to find her on the floor and there’s stuff knocked over, and it was literally terrifying. Half our street was leveled. My neighbor next door who was elderly died the next day of a heart attack and was listed among the victims of the quake.
I just felt like if there was some way to make sure that everything that happened in the movie had an emotional and personal component, that that would be the way to really make people feel engaged. I have to say, some recent disaster movies, they’re great on a spectacle level but very poor on an emotional level. I felt like the real key to success in this movie was to find a way to personify everything that was going on, on a disaster level, through these characters.
You also have to make it palatable. I appreciate that…
But after the tsunami hits San Francisco, they’re riding a boat through the city, I’m thinking, “They should be wading through bodies. Just everywhere, bodies.” I realize it would have been doom-like and gross, but…
I think there is that tough line. Again, what’s the reality line? [When] you’re making a movie to be entertaining, you have to find that balance and tone, and I think Brad did a great job. I think there’s enough resonance to make it feel real, but you know, it’s not meant to be – again – a documentary.
Right, but there does have to be so much consequence. Having your cast of characters be very small, there are fewer prominent figures you can kill throughout the film to really emphasize and ramp up the drama.
Correct, yeah. Right, which is… we did have one character who completely turns chicken and [dies]. That was an important part of the movie, to show somebody who was completely selfish in the face of this disaster. But you’re right, that is the drawback by not having a giant mosaic of characters in the story. But I feel like, in analysis, it was better to be more tightly focused than it was to show ten other different experiences.